What has Happened to the Greene County Farmer?

A look at the agricultural history of our area, from inception, to boom, to decline

By Jill Cohen for the Greenville Local, Bleezarde Publishing


PART ONE: September 23, 2004 - Page 9

One of the things Iíve heard most about since moving to Greene County is the predicament of farmers. When itís time for the schools to determine their budgets, and property taxes are going up once again, sure people complain, but what do these enormous tax hikes actually do to some of our neighbors? What effect do they have on one demographic in particular? The farmer. Well, some of them have had to sell off pieces of their properties, a little bit more, year after year, to compensate for two factors: one, the progressive decline of the need for the services of the independent farmer, and two, the ever-skyrocketing cost of living.

This three part series will explore the situation. In part one, we will begin with the history of Greene County, and its oldest profession, farming. In part two we will reflect on the changes that took place in the industry during the twentieth century. In part three, we will talk things over with some of our more vocal proponents of preserving the independent farming industry, and speak to those who have witnessed, first hand, what has become of a once lucrative and essential part of life in our area.

PART I:

To quote former Governor Mario M. Cuomo, ďThe Catskills and Greene County region is important for the part it plays in New Yorkís enormous recreation and tourism industry; for its agriculture and forest products; for its water resources, which provide the purest and most dependable supply of water enjoyed by any big city in the world, for its cultural values as the cradle of American landscape painting and one of the nationís wilderness recreation ethic; but most of all for its people- diverse, independent residents, proud defenders of their mountains, valleys, and hamlets and the life they pursue there.Ē

Humans have inhabited Greene County for over ten thousand years, according to A History of the Greene County Catskills, by Field Horne.

The earliest known inhabitants were called ďPaleo-Indians,Ē living here between 9500 and 8000 B.C. Evidence of their existence has been found in two locations, West Athens Hill Road, and Kings Road in Catskill. The Paleo-Indians were followed by people of the Archaic culture, hunters, fishermen, and gathers, who lived near the waterways.

By the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, what is now regarded as Greene County was occupied by two tribes of Native Americans, the Munsee, and the Mahicans.

ďThe two tribes established villages in river or creek valleys where the soil was rich and the game plentiful,Ē says Horne. They relocated every 8-12 years, living mostly off of their crops. The women of the tribes grew other small gardens, and the tribes added nuts, berries and fish to their diets to round out their nutritional needs.

In the seventeenth century, the first European settlers appeared, changing the area forever.

It wasnít actually until around 1664 that the first real settlers were drawn to Greene County, where the landscape was considered rough, though Albany had already been settled to the North. In 1664 the English colonial government provided land patents to the settlers. In the early years of settlement there were four major land patents: the first was comprised of the eastern half of Athens and southeast Coxsackie. The second was the Coeymans patent, including much of New Baltimore, part of Coxsackie, and a lot of land in what is now Albany county. The third patent, the Catskill Patent, was a circular tract of fertile land included (sic) all of Leeds, and surrounding land and totaled 35,000 acres. The largest was the fourth patent, the Hardenbergh Patent, two million acres with only 140,000 in Greene County.

The Dutch settlers and farmers brought African slaves to the region, as evidenced in the census records of 1790. Apparently many farmers back then owned slaves, who worked the large farm properties developing at the time. According to Horne, in the eighteenth century, ďwith the possible exception of some fishermen and a few who provided services or engaged in trade, colonial residents of Greene County worked farmland, even if they knew another craft. . . Most tradesmen and women combined their work with management of a small farm.Ē

The Revolutionary War at the end of the century, however, left much of the farmland devastated. Horne says that compared to the Albany and Kingston communities, Greene County at this time was pretty far behind the times, and underdeveloped as well. About 50 years after the war ended, land was in production once again, contributing plenty of grain, cheese, butter, salted and fresh meat all over New York state.

Greene County was ďboomingĒ in the nineteenth century, due to improvements in east-west transportation. Though manufacturing was quickly overtaking farming in many parts of the new republic in the beginning of the century, Greene County was not too affected, aside from a few small iron forges, paper and textile mills. The economy continued to thrive off of the production of butter, cheese, and meat, adding flour, timber and leather to its best sellerís list.

Greene County was also a prime wheat-growing region for a number of decades in the nineteenth century. Different area produced different crops. Cairo was a wheat crop area while Windham was known for its dairy production. Another crop of major importance during this time was hay. There was a smaller, though still important maple sugar boom, eventually leading to a maple syrup boom in the twentieth century.

Still other farmers raised cattle and sheep for slaughter, and during the second half of the nineteenth century, ďthe pastures of Greene County farms provided food for thousands of cows, and their products, especially butter, provided a chief source of income for farm families.Ē

The end of the nineteenth century marked an important turn in the way farming was handled. Rather that the usual rotation of crops, farmers began raising specific crops, leading to titles such as ďfruit farmer,Ē or ďdairy farmer,Ē for the first time.

Popular crops always changed with the times. Cheese production on the farm, so important in the middle of the century, was close to insignificant by 1875. By 1900, almost all cheese was produced in factories.

The peak of farming in Greene County was actually reached in 1880. In that year, there were 3,032 farms, including 240,734 acres of improved land, or 58 percent of the countyís total area. This was before the decline of grain crops, and farming in general.

In one decade following 1890, 233 farms were abandoned. During this time a Jewett historian remarked, ďDuring the 1890ís the hillside farms became less profitable, for much of the land was not suitable to cultivation by the farm machinery that was becoming a necessity, and many farms were abandoned. The location was too rural, too inaccessible, to attract many summer boarders.Ē

Farmers were concentrating their holdings on better lands, and crops became more specific, comprised of mainly dairy, hay and fruit.

In the next installment, we will take a look at what happened to what was primarily an agricultural area in the 18th and 19th centuries, during the twentieth century. We will also have some first hand accounts from local farmers who can remember back quite far.

PART TWO: September 30, 2004

One of the things Iíve heard most about since moving to Greene County is the predicament of farmers. When itís time for the schools to determine their budgets, and property taxes are going up once again, sure people complain, but what do these enormous tax hikes actually do to some of our neighbors? What effect do they have on one demographic in particular? The farmer. Well, some of them have had to sell off pieces of their properties, a little bit more, year after year, to compensate for two factors: one, the progressive decline of the need for the services of the independent farmer, and two, the ever-skyrocketing cost of living.

This three part series will explore the situation. In part one, we will begin with the history of Greene County, and its oldest profession, farming. In part two we will reflect on the changes that took place in the industry during the twentieth century. In part three, we will talk things over with some of our more vocal proponents of preserving the independent farming industry, and speak to those who have witnessed, first hand, what has become of a once lucrative and essential part of life in our area.

Part two:

As Field Horne states in his book, The Greene County Catskills: A History, ďthe prevailing mood at the end of the nineteenth century was optimism.Ē Growth was evident all over the county in every area. Numbers for education, productivity, and well being, were all looking good.

It was a trend of the time for the average citizen to set his or her mind to solving the social problems of the time, and making an effort to understand the world around them. Equality for women was just around the corner in the twentieth century, slavery had already been abolished, and church numbers were growing.

Farming, our chief subject here, had its ups and downs at the end of the century, and certain trends were beginning to become evident. Rather than just ďfarmer,Ē agriculturists were naming their trades more specifically, such as ďfruit,Ē or ďdairyĒ farmer.

The agricultural community began to be the meeting place of other subjects. Agricultural fairs, which began in the beginning of the century, had become events encouraged by the government, and places for farmers to display their mastery. Greene County farmers sought out the fairs year after year for opportunities to exchange ideas and information, and to examine new equipment and technology. Often times there were speakers, sharing valuable ideas of the times. In the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries, common topics stumped upon were ďHow to Make Farming Pay,Ē and similar topics which were making attempts at helping farmers find ways to continue to live in an ever more competitive market.

In the very end of the century, these fairs had become as much a source of public entertainment as a place of shared business strategy.

The most important aspect of farming at the beginning of the twentieth century was undoubtedly mechanization. Long before dairying became Greene Countyís most successful enterprise for the farmer, cattle and sheep raising had a time of importance. Many of the poorer farmers on the mountaintop and in the ďhighlandsĒ concentrated on this type of farming. However, as wool prices began to decline, so did this trend in farming.

Thus, dairy farming became the predominant trade of farmers in Greene for the next century, and mechanization played an important role in the survival of the fittest.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, butter production had increased from 1.2 million pounds to 2.2 million pounds in the county in just 50 years, and then just 10 years later, saw a sharp production decline once the creameries took over.

One constant was the number of milch cows, which remained steady at between 12 and 15 thousand throughout the county. By the 1910ís and 1920ís the gallons of milk produced per year had increased tenfold from two decades earlier. Growth factors that contributed to this trend were pasteurization, the DeLaval cream separator, and the Babcock butterfat tester.

Creameries were factories for this area, used for the production of butter and cheese. Another late introduction to dairying was the silo.

The Durham Creamery Association was organized as a stock company in 1869, making butter and cheese, but by 1900 virtually all cheese was made in factories and one-third of butter was produced by creameries, but in Greene, they were only just becoming important at that time.

Dairying varied widely around the county. In Hunter, where there was significantly less farming in general than other areas, the dairy supply was almost strictly just for the hotel population. Marketing patterns are said to be difficult to reconstruct at this time, but the easiest, cheapest methods were surely used. Some evidence suggests that there were district agents who took charge of the shipping.

Pork packing had become an important part of the Catskill economy at the beginning of the twentieth century as well.

It is important to remember though, that farming in Greene County reached its peak in 1880. In that year, 3,032 farms included 240,734 acres of improved land, as stated last week, and though farming was abundant in the first few decades of the twentieth century, it was in a decline.

By 1890 signs of the decline in the extent, if not the profitability of farming were quite evident. In one decade 233 farms had been abandoned. Profits from farms were increasingly produced from dairy, as mentioned earlier, hay and fruit. Another focus of twentieth farming was the canning of fruit, usually a seasonal business, with a factory called Lounsburyís in Coxsackie.

It wasnít until the mid to late twentieth century that the real crisis began for farmers, one which continues today, and one that will be recalled an (sic) examined in first hand accounts in next weekís installment.

PART THREE: October 7, 2004 - Page 8

One of the things Iíve heard most about since moving to Greene County is the predicament of farmers. When itís time for the schools to determine their budgets, and property taxes are going up once again, sure people complain, but what do these enormous tax hikes actually do to some of our neighbors? What effect do they have on one demographic in particular? The farmer. Well, some of them have had to sell off pieces of their properties, a little bit more, year after year, to compensate for two factors: one, the progressive decline of the need for the services of the independent farmer, and two, the ever-skyrocketing cost of living.

This multi-part series will explore the situation. In part one, we will begin with the history of Greene County, and its oldest profession, farming. In part two we will reflect on the changes that took place in the industry during the twentieth century. In part three, we will talk things over with some of our more vocal proponents of preserving the independent farming industry, and speak to those who have witnessed, first hand, what has become of a once lucrative and essential part of life in our area.

In this segment, a local Greene County farmer tells his tale, a perfect precursor to out (sic) final installment, in which we will examine exactly where farmers here stand, today.

Irving Smith, New Baltimore farmer:

ďI am a retired dairy farmer. My father was a farmer, and six generations before that. My son has continued the tradition as much as he could, or can. We have beef cows, and he helps me when he can, but he also works for the local highway dept in New Baltimore-he has to.

I grew up here; I was born on one of two farms we owned, 77 years ago. The farm my son lives on now was the family farm, my father purchased the one I live on, but itís been in the Smith family since 1837. There was a brief time when city people owned it, for about 5-6 years, but it has been back in my family since 1941.

Growing up farming was a lot simpler. It was easier to make an income, farms werenít as big, you could make a living on a lot less than you can now. There are mostly huge farms today, and today the debt is bad. Growing up there were still a lot of little farms, but now I can count them on one hand. It has gotten to the point where you canít make a decent living as a dairy farmer; if you break even you are doing good.

I canít tell you exactly when it got so bad, over the years, little by little, farmers dropped off gradually, in this area there are no corporate farms that I know about, but the few farms that are left have had to get bigger and bigger. Their debt load must be terrific, in olden days farmers werenít in as much debt, thatís for sure.

When I sold the dairy cows off, 11-12 years ago, we had no debt whatsoever. I didnít have any, because I just didnít try to get bigger to stay afloat like other people. My fatherís farm was just a family farm; it was never a big operation.

Before I got older, we had one hired man for some years, because back then you could hire a man for $1 or $2 an hour, money just seemed to go further. Of course, this is all just my opinion. When we were milking cows we were just killing ourselves and barely getting along, so my son got into construction, he made more money that way, I tried it [farming] for a few years by myself but I was killing myself even more doing it all alone, so I got rid of it finally. I havenít [like some others] sold off too much land except to my daughter. She lives on some of it. She paid me a token price to put house on five acre field of mine. We have over 300 acres; it used to be all farmland, woods, and pastures. Roughly 100 acres is still used to cut hay, too (sic) feed the beef cows. Itís tillable farmland. There is a lot of pasture, they [cows] can pasture just about every where. We donít slaughter them; our income is based on how many animals we have. We mainly sell younger animals, steers, feeder cattle, 700, 800 pounds a piece, and then we send them to a commission sale. Theyíre usually put on feed lots, then slaughtered. A large percentage of the heifers I sell, itís quite possible others buy to establish a small herd of their own, I donít ask.

Some farmers have sold off their land to meet their debt load, but our land is on a back road. Maybe if we lived closer to a village we could have sold some, though I luckily never really had to. You can sell land off to developers; I imagine a lot of farmers did that. Ever-rising taxes have made it harder to make money. The big thing is, the expenses are higher, you canít get good help you can afford, you canít pay them what they could earn other places. Property tax, and the school taxes are extremely high, whatever you buy is more expensive than it used to be, utilities more than they used to be, everything is. Everything except what you earn as a farmer, the prices you get for what you sell never seem to go up. I donít know, maybe itís that way with any business, but look at what has happened to us, we stand out.

You could go and buy a tractor when I was a kid for $45,000, now theyíre at least $60,000-$70,000. At a time when milk is down, things change eventually and people are paying a halfway decent price, and then everyone floods the market, back to square one. There are some people who will milk more cows to make a buck, but I donít want to milk 200-300 cows a day. The way I see it, beef cows take care of themselves, and at any given time we probably have, and only need 25 of them.

There was a time when my fatherís farm make (sic) good money, I mean weíve never been down and out, always been debt free, have always made it somehow. On the other hand, Iím 77 now, and I still practically work seven days a week.

When my dad died in 1970, dairy farm, conditions were still good, we never milked over 60 cows. We didnít have to be one of these large places, it was all strictly family farm support-for my parents, my wife, and me; it kept us going.

I definitely think taxes playing a very large part of whatís happened to farming in Greene County. The school taxes we pay have put me and my wife at the limit, and the price of services go up all the time. Thereís an old saying ďfarmers now buy retail, and sell wholesale,Ē I think that sums it up.

PART FOUR: October 28, 2004

One of the things Iíve heard most about since moving to Greene County is the predicament of farmers. When itís time for the schools to determine their budgets, and property taxes are going up once again, sure people complain, but what do these enormous tax hikes actually do to some of our neighbors? What effect do they have on one demographic in particular? The farmer. Well, some of them have had to sell off pieces of their properties, a little bit more, year after year, to compensate for two factors: one, the progressive decline of the need for the services of the independent farmer, and two, the ever-skyrocketing cost of living.

This three part series has explored the situation. In part one, we covered the history of Greene County, and its oldest profession, farming. In part two we reflected on the changes that took place in the industry during the twentieth century. In part three, we heard, first hand, from one of the more vocal proponents of preserving the independent farming industry. And now, we will look back at what we have learned, and what it means today.

Special thanks to Irving Smith, and Wayne Hascall, for sharing their life stories with our readership.

On this journey, we have witnessed the rise and decline of the farming industry in the local area. Long before machinery took over, the first Greene County farmers were busting their butts trying to convert this wilderness into good soil for farming. After a few initial stops and starts, Greene County finally saw a boom in the eighteenth century, when farmers could make a living off of their dairy cows. Later on, crops became specialized, fruit, hay, these were steady profit makers, other types of farming fell off the radar. Farmers had to change with the times if they wanted to survive. Tourism became an escape route for some, who would convert their lands into Bed&Breakfasts or tourist attractions. Some stuck with farming, generation after generation, and still, it is the family occupation today, as in the case of Irving Smith, New Baltimore farmer.

The twentieth century upgrading of transportation, leading to the centralization of shopping centers, taking it out of the small village, and putting into the bigger cities, this certainly hurt the farmer.

Taxes, without a doubt, continue to hurt the farmer, some who after having had a bad year with their crops, who for one reason or another do not qualify for federal or state aid, simply cannot afford their property taxes, and must sell their land.

The cost of the mechanization of farming compared with the low sale prices, the competition with larger farming giants, these factors do not help.

But once farming is a lost art, and the entire employment industry lies in retail and service, and the land has been gobbled up by condominium complexes, and large warehouses, what will happen to the true character of this county?

Once again hear a story, of a local farmer, with whose help we will end this series.

Wayne Hascall, Acra:

ďI was a dairy farmer. Six generations of farmers, trying to make a living. My son will not be a farmer, right now he drives a truck.

Iíve never lived anywhere else, Iím 66 years old now. I was born on this farm with just my mother and her midwife.

My life was simple for many years, that was before I inherited the headaches. I donít know how it suddenly happened, but it just seemed like one day we couldnít make a living anymore Prices werenít what they should be. Seemed like everyone else could somehow afford to sell lower, everyone but us.

We got in a lot of debt just trying to keep up, and then we had some bad years. Seems like Iím still paying those off. And I donít know what Iíd do without my Social Security. Donít get me wrong Iíve worked hard, hard, hard my whole life, and I deserve it, but I just couldnít believe after everything, that I was retiring with just the government welfare.

Weíve had pigs, many of them, some cows, some crops, but I could feel our grip slipping. Taxes were driving us crazy, before my mother passed away I could tell her heart wasnít in it anymore either.

It would have been nice if we had the money to hire someone to help us break this place down, thatís really what happened, we broke it down little y (sic) little, and soon Iím going to sell off most of the acres and live a real simple life.

It amazes me how much land we once had, some would think what we still have is a lot.

If you ask me I think its sad the way people donít need each other anymore. We only seem to need computers and machines-bank machines, milk machines, whatís the difference?

I feel like one odd bird these days, if it wasnít for my wife, I donít know. People would meet me and think I was a lunatic I guess. My kids used to say I was old-fashioned.

But I donít think thatís it, I have values. I mean, whatís the sense of going to war and spending billions of dollars, when we canít even give our own farmers a break. Itís like we care about everything but ourselves.

And I love children as much as the next person, but for the love of God, I donít understand why we have to pay such high property taxes to the schools when we donít have any school kids anymore, it just doesnít seem fair.

Itís just so strange, it seems like farming is a novelty now. It used to be all there was, and now itís a cute thing if something is homemade, the city people that come up here love it. Sure, theyíll pay $6 for a cute, homemade brownie, but my milk prices?

Iím afraid that when my generation is gone, there wonít be anyone to remember what we stood for. We worked so hard, we didnít divorce our wivea (sic), usually anyway. We were too busy, working too hard.

We ate what we grew, we prayed, and we got along most of the time. I really donít understand why everyone wants to be a lawyer, or a doctor instead of a farmer. Was it something to be ashamed of? I was proud. People donít respect the land anymore, and thereís only so much of it left. Godís not growing anymore. I guess if people would rather bury it underneath their pavement that (sic) learn from it, and grow with it, than Iím beter (sic) off where I am.


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